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Descartes's Descendants: The Novels of Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byBae Myung-hoon

Emerging Writers

In the Korean literary scene where realism has traditionally dominated, science fiction was, in both quantity and quality, relatively underrepresented. Moreover, at times science fiction was not recognized as literature and cherished only by a small fan base.

In the 2000s, a trend began in the Korean literary scene: the active exploration of fantasy and the future. These explorations led to discoveries of a new reality. A new generation of writers started traversing the line between the fantastic and the real, intermixing elements from realism and fantasy. In novels, protagonists that were aliens, zombies, clones, and "pseudo-human[s]" began appearing. These creatures problematized the humanistic value system and humanity as a race. The settings of these works escaped the familiar reality and expanded into a computer-generated virtual reality, outer space, and post-apocalyptic worlds.

In the midst of these changes and developments, science fiction entered into Korean fiction. In addition, readers and literary critics focused more attention on this genre. The young writers who have received the most attention are undoubtedly Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young. These two authors write science fiction, but their works also span broadly over the genres of fantasy, children's literature, and detective novels. Nonetheless, the majority of their works, and the ones that received the most attention, are science fiction.

Bae caught the world’s attention with the book Tower (2009) and the short story collection Hello, The Artificial Being! (2010). In subsequent years, he consecutively published the science fiction novel Divine Orbit (2011) and Sir Chancellor (2012), a novel with elements of science fiction.

On her part, Kim simultaneously published two collections of sci-fi short stories, Distant Tales and An Evolutionary Myth (2010), and she recently reemerged with Seven Executors (2013), a novel with elements from mythology, eschatology, science fiction, and Chinese martial arts literature.

Bae is prominently recognized as a writer in the Korean literary scene where realism reigns; Kim has received a strong show of support from science fiction readers. In this article, the works of these two writers will be explored.

 

Bae Myung-hoon: An Experiment on Being

Bae Myung-hoon is a young writer that has demonstrated the literary potential of science fiction in Korean literature through the work Tower (2009) and the short collection Hello, The Artificial Being! (2010). The strength of Bae's work lies in his clear and uncomplicated narrative style, witty and ingenious ideas and cognitive supposition, characters with distinct personalities, and his exploration into the ethical side of human relations.

“Hello, The Artificial Being!” from the short story collection Hello, The Artificial Being! garnered much attention among critics and the readers. This story unfolds around a strange product, "Pact," that was left to the protagonist by a friend, the exceptional scientist Shin Woo-jeong who had committed suicide. This product is an enigma. Even the reason why it was left to the protagonist is unknown. According to its user manual, "Pact" is the pure being itself that was extracted through Descartes’s statement "Cogito, ergo sum." The protagonist is completely at a loss as to what to do with this thing, and he finally decides to release it into outer space. Only then does the protagonist realize that this pure or artificial being is art, precisely because it has no use of any kind and "what remained of the being entered deeper inside" him when he sent "the being off into outer space." Through this series of events, the protagonist finally realizes that the death of his friend, which he was struggling to understand, was caused because of problems with relationships.

The theme of the problem of relationships is revisited in depth in “Proposal” (Moonye Joongang, fall 2010), a work that captures the essence of Bae's science fiction. This short story is an earnest literary experiment that attempts to address the anxiety and fear caused by the idea of a parallel universe from the perspective of “otherness.” “Proposal” is also an exceptional work that showcases a scientific imagination, an essential element of science fiction, in a precise and exhaustive manner. The protagonist is serving in the army of the United Earth Surface, which is facing suspicion and false accusations from inhabitants on Earth and contending with attacks from an unknown alien armada in outer space. By the end of the story, the unknown aliens are revealed to be the protagonist himself from the future and the community he currently belongs to that encountered through a space-time warp, an event particular to parallel universes. “Proposal” is a work characterized by a rigorous reflection of the self: the alien is one's self that is most unfamiliar and alienated.

Bae’s first novel was Divine Orbit, which derives from the question, "What if God exists physically somewhere in the orbits of the stars?" From this point on, Divine Orbit’s imagination takes off into the far reaches of the universe. The protagonist, Eun-gyoung, who dreams of becoming an astronaut, wakes up from her cryogenic slumber on the planet Naniye, 150 thousand years after she was charged and sentenced with the crime of aiding the terrorist Baklava. She discovers that Naniye is an artificial planet built by her father who froze her. While trying to escape the planet, she encounters Friar Namul who bears a resemblance to Baklava. From there, the two begin their curious adventure, wandering through space.

Despite its extensive scale, Divine Orbit is a captivating read. Not only does it contain elements specific to science fiction, such as the proof of the existence of God, the demise of the human race, and space travel, it also delves into fundamental questions of being human: love, faith, and friendship. The novel is sure to become a milestone in the history of Korean science fiction.

Sir Chancellor, Bae’s most recently published work, tactfully attempts a kind of sociological extrapolation of the future by using versions of actual events that occurred recently in Korean society. The novel depicts, through both positive and negative images, the multitudinous facets of human dealings that are likely possible in the hypothetical future world under the rule of the chancellor. In such ways, Bae’s works extract the most essential elements from the abyss of human existence using extrapolation, intriguing premises, and brilliant ideas.

 

 

1. Seven Executors
Kim Bo-young, Polabooks
2013, 560p, ISBN 9788993094831
2. An Evolutionary Myth
Kim Bo-young, Happy Reading Books
2010, 336p, ISBN 9788989571667
3. Distant Tales
Kim Bo-young, Happy Reading Books
2010, 504p, ISBN 9788989571650
4. Tower
Bae Myung-hoon, Woongjin ThinkBig Co., Ltd.
2009, 272p, ISBN 9788901096438
  5. Divine Orbit (2 vols.)
Bae Myung-hoon
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2011, 336p, ISBN 9788954615723 (Vol.1)
6. Hello, The Artificial Being!
Bae Myung-hoon, Bookhouse Publishers
2010, 325p, ISBN 9788956054605
7. Sir Chancellor
Bae Myung-hoon, Bookhouse Publishers
2012, 360p, ISBN 9788956056104

 

Kim Bo-young: Looking for Truth

As it is the case with “A Tactile Experience” from Distant Tales, one of Kim Bo-young's prominent works, her science fiction stories strongly exhibit the characteristics of a Gedankenexperiment, a thought experiment that is specific to science fiction. Like Bae, Kim plays a variation on the Cartesian cogito, and conducts an experiment that shakes the foundations of traditional assumptions of anthropocentric thinking and senses. However, whereas Bae's thought experiment is an ethical one devised in order to delve into the problems of human relations, Kim's moves in the opposite direction. Kim starts from a more philosophical and epistemological questioning and then derives an ethical formula. The reader of her works must first concentrate on their own senses and thought process. Then, and only then, can the reader experience an epistemic shock and be moved by the work.

The story “A Tactile Experience” unfolds in this manner: the first person point of view protagonist receives a clone from Dr. Yu Shi-hun. Is an exchange of sensory perception between a human and its clone in an incubator possible? Can the clone dream the human dreams of its original? Under the premise of our reality, it is not possible. However, the story progresses steadily, overturning that precondition and supposition. The progression of the narrative itself is an intellectual thought experiment. Moreover, the details in “A Tactile Experience” are abundant and meticulous, placing it on the level of some of the great works of science fiction. The story succeeds at what Darko Suvin, the well-known science fiction critic, cites as one of the essential mandatory requirements for a work of science fiction: cognitive estrangement.

After the clone dies because of a virus, the narrator hears about the clone's "dream" from the doctor: "It was not a dream. It was the first experience. It was an intense sensation of colors and harmony that it experienced for the first time in its life. The kind we cannot expect to experience ever living in a deluge of sensations. It was as if the storm had hit. The first thing it ever touched... encountered for the first time... someone else's... feeling, it was." Therefore, the first basic sensory experience that the clone had was tactile—one that requires touching another. In this fiction, through touching the human, the clone changes from a passive being that unilaterally accepted human senses, feelings, and intellect and mechanically imitated them, into a being that autonomously thinks and senses.

While Descartes claims that dreams only deceive the cogito's processing of sensory perceptions, what is fundamental in the thought experiments of Kim’s writing are the senses, especially tactile sensations, through the skin, of touching the other instead of cogito, that does the thinking. A similar kind of thought experiment is conducted in the short story “The Fifth Sense” that problematizes the question of the senses in a world where sound has disappeared.

In some ways, the short stories featured in Distant Tales are reminiscent of the exceptional science fiction of the American science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. Additionally, aside from the question of sensory perception, Kim also borrows many familiar devices of the science fiction genre, including the human species, time travel, and a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by robots, but she manages to create completely unique works from that framework.

An Evolutionary Myth is also a collection of unique works. Some of the short stories twist Korean mythology, legend, and allegory with Darwin's theory of evolution. In “The Scripter,” published in An Evolutionary Myth, a question is raised: Can it be possible that the subject, the agent that senses and thinks, "is a prank inserted by a genius programmer in order to test his skills?" This is the hypothesis of the evil demon that captivated Descartes. Is the "I" only "myself" or an automaton programmed by someone? The novel, Seven Executors, addresses this question.

Seven Executors is a genre bender, containing elements from science fiction, eschatology, Chinese martial arts literature, and detective novels. It is a complex novel that takes a unique form. The premise of this novel, the hypothesis that parallel universes exist in that a differentiated existence can exist in dissimilar ways in different universes, is exactly the novel form that this work takes. The protagonist Heuk-young is the prince of the kingdom of Budo, and he is sentenced to death six times in six worlds for the murder of his brother, the king. As he travels through the six different worlds through the past, present, and future, he loses his memories and identity in the previous world and assumes the identity and the memory programmed in by the Executors. While he carries on according to the Executors' judgment, the prophecy that controls his life and death, Heuk-young gambles and desperately tries to create his own existence in an incomprehensible world. If the first six of Seven Executors are the evil demons of Descartes, the seventh one is the protagonist himself, standing against such evil genius. In a way, this conforms to the Cartesian cogito but is different in that Descartes places God as his guarantor against the evil genius. Kim's novel is an adventure and experiment that desperately seeks one's own truth only in the very world where life and death, truth and falsehood, memory and forgetting, and self and the other intermingle chaotically.

 

The Flourishing Future of Korean Science Fiction

Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young are the descendants of Descartes in Korean science fiction. However, instead of following in the footsteps of their predecessor, who conducted the thought experiment of "Cogito, ergo sum," they ask fundamental questions about the world, the subject, and the other by twisting and violating them. Bae's experiment progresses with nimble steps, while that of Kim's moves thoroughly and meticulously. This kind of comparison is no more than a phantasm that arises from the very act of comparison. With these two writers, Korean science fiction, as is the case with all science fiction, shall be the literature of the future.